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Preaching with the Unchurched in Mind

I recently led a breakout session at regional conference in Oklahoma City dealing with how churches think strategically about their weekend services as it concerns the unchurched. Now I know that within even my own tribe we have good and godly churches with different strategies on how to make disciples (e.g., attractional, incarnational, etc.), so I wasn’t trying to highlight one over the other. I was simply asked to share how I thought about reaching unbelievers via our worship services. I’ve included the first part of my presentation which dealt with the preaching element. At CCCC, we eschew seeker-driven or seeker-sensitive terminology because those words are loaded with too much baggage and preconceived ideas. We would say we attempt to be seeker-aware in our worship services. In other words, we, as those who love Jesus and his gospel, are seeking to genuinely and passionately worship God, not only with the understanding that unbelievers are present but that we desire to help them learn and, by God’s sovereign grace, one day love Jesus and his gospel with us. With that said, here are my notes (sorry for the length, run-ons, etc.) for the eleven things to think about when preaching with the unchurched in mind:

#1: Acknowledge unbelievers in the room throughout your message.

I personally like to do this in the introduction of my message, “Now if you’re checking out Jesus and kicking the tires on who he is, here’s what I hope you get out of today….” I’m including unbelievers by helping give them a way to see this message as I address what God has done for us in Christ. Do this throughout your message as well.  Think about how does this or that specific part of your message intersects with someone seeking Jesus?

#2: Walk more slowly than you think.

Most of the unchurched in my context come from a post-Christian, post-biblical culture. This means, among other things, that tons of my listeners aren’t familiar with the Bible in either its teachings or stories. “I think I know who Moses is. He went on that big boat that parted the sea, right?” Thus, our assumptions we bring to certain texts about what our listeners understand of the story simply isn’t there. That’s why I’m constantly taking time to break-things-down for my congregation. Adding that extra explanation takes time (even if it’s a little). Which leads me to say why this will be true…

#3 Explain everything. Define everything.  Constantly give context. Stop making assumptions.

If you feel the need to use a big term (e.g., justification) – define it, illustrate it, etc. Do the same with what you think are small words as well. For example, when I say words like Old Testament or New Testament, I’m going to have to break it down. If I say Israel, I like to say they are God’s original covenant people, which often leads me to tell people what the word covenant means. You see how this goes. Don’t assume anything when it comes to words you think most people know. For example, when I say gospel (which I do almost every time I preach) I almost always define it in every message: God doing for us in Christ what we cannot do for ourselves. This extra clarification, once again, demands you walk more slowly through your message. It also helps to find most common denominator words or definitions that your listeners can easily grasp. Another thing you can do is when you finish your sermon manuscript, take a marker and highlight phrases or words where your lost friend could get confused without a sentence or phrase of explanation. Then go back and define, explain, and/or give context.

#4: Draw more frequent contemporary parallels instead of biblical ones (unless you’re going to take your time to really flesh out the new biblical text).

I remember a well-known preacher say he preferred to use biblical stories (especially from the Old Testament) as illustrations because it was another way to use God’s Word. Now, I’m not against that at all, the only tension in referencing other biblical stories is the assumption that your listener knows that story (e.g., Good Samaritan). But remember: don’t assume the knowledge of the unchurched is biblically-informed. So, if in preaching you say that baptism for Christians is like circumcision in the Old Testament, what are you obligated to do? Explain both the Old Testament and circumcision because many if not most of the unchurched won’t follow your lead biblically. But if you said baptism is like a wedding ring –  another sign/seal demonstrating we have entered into a covenant relationship but doesn’t make the covenant itself – your unbelieving listener is more likely to follow you.

#5: Aim for simplicity and clarity.

The simpler and clearer, the more effective you will be for the uninitiated. Don’t be deceived that “deep” is some theologically-complex, biblically-comprehensive, homiletically-nuanced sermon. In the almost twenty years of preaching to unchurched men and women (and believing men and women) it’s often one truth the Holy Spirit uses to grow, convict, and challenge your listener. Indeed, I would make sure you center your message around that truth (i.e., Big Idea sermons) which should ultimately be centered in the person and work of Jesus. By the way, simplicity and clarity will benefit your believers as well.

#6: Use inductive/leading questions in your message.

Say aloud, “Why would Christians believe this?” Help them connect the dots. They often won’t be able to do it themselves. Think of yourself as a guide walking your listener down a path through God’s truth making sure everyone stays with you. By using questions you give the listener mental hooks to hang the answers you’re leading them to. In other words, think of your sermon as a catechism for the unchurched by which you ask and answer questions for them so they might better understand Christ and the Kingdom he brings in the gospel not only now but in the future as they consider Jesus.

#7: Go wide angle (with the Story of Redemption) often.

The unchurched, and many churched, see the Bible as a bunch of random stories with Jesus somewhere about two-thirds of the way through. Helping them see where your text stands in the one Great Story will help listeners see the Scripture less as Aesop’s Fables for Christians and more as the Story of God found in Jesus. It also gives more opportunities for the unchurched person to see that Jesus is the One he or she must ultimately deal with.

#8: Anticipate your listeners’ objections.

This tends to be more natural for preachers who have a harmonizer personality. But what if you’re a prophetic personality and want to “kill ‘em all with the truth and let God sort ‘em out”? Well, addressing the push-backs of unbelievers not only helps them digest the truth of what you’re saying but displays love/consideration/concern for them as real people with real questions on a real journey! This is where it helps to FEEL through your message. How would a unsaved dude receive this? Doesn’t mean you change your content but how you present that content. Which leads me to say…

#9: Share your objections, struggles, confusion, and tension with the Bible.

You will come across as a human being to your listener. You also can encourage your unbelieving listener to read the Bible and not quit just because it’s tough to do so.

#10: Watch your tone.

Everyone comes into the room with baggage and loaded terms. You don’t want to “go off” on something they’ve never even thought through because it never occurred to them to do so. Again, ours is a post-Christian, post-biblical world. It’s easy to rail against promiscuity with red-face and raised voice, but if you were never taught God’s Word about a Kingdom sexual ethic, you won’t have a reference point for the preacher’s vigor and verve. Many won’t hear what the preacher is saying because they can’t get past his condemning tone. When it doubt, choose being winsome over warlike.

#11: Preach Jesus.

Don’t give the unchurched (or followers of Jesus) what they could get from Oprah, Dr. Phil, or a coach’s locker room talk. Good advice is aplenty, good news is scarce. Preach gospel-centered sermons, period. This means that the hero of the sermon is not the listener. What I challenge my young preacher guys at CCCC is, after they’ve finished their sermon prep, to ask, “Why did Jesus have to die for this message?” If Jesus felt the entire Bible was about him, you cannot preach the Bible as Jesus saw it if you don’t preach it centered around his person and work (cf., Lk. 24:25-27, Jn. 5:39, Mt. 5:17). You want your listeners to think not me, myself, and I, but what a wonderful Savior is Jesus! Do you want to help unbelievers who enter your worship service (cf., 1 Cor. 14)? Then preach in such a way that you put the cookies on the bottom shelf. I can almost promise you this will help those who have yet to find Jesus but those who follow him as well. In my next post I’ll share ways we think about helping the unchurched from parking lot to pew.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

1 thought on “Preaching with the Unchurched in Mind”

  1. A really insightful article, Yancey. I have forwarded it on to my pastors. I would suppose that points you are making can also be used by those of us who witness…at least to some degree. It would be interesting to see how this would actually manifest itself in a less formal, less controlled setting. Just thinking….

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